INTERVIEW: Vintage caravans, the history of Cheltenhams and more (part 1)
In part one of a three part series, Caravan magazine talks to Cecil Gardner, caravanning royalty and son of Cheltenham Caravans founder, about speeding, gas explosions, touring during the war and more…
What’s your earliest memory of caravanning? Did your family caravan before they started the business?
“Well, no. My father bought an ex army ambulance in 1918, and he turned that into a motorcaravan. He decided there was no future in this because, of course, in those days there were no caravan sites at all!
“With a motorcaravan you had to have a dead level site otherwise you’d fall out of bed, and in those days if you wanted to go and buy a pint of milk you had to take the whole thing with you. We’re talking in the days of gravity feed petrol, so the tank was high up in the ambulance part, and the only cooker he’d got was a solid stove.
“Imagine the size of that. If it was hot enough to cook, you wouldn’t really want that around the smell of petrol, so that’s another reason why he decided there was no future in it. He started building caravans.”
Did that business end up being successful then?
“Oh, yes. We started hiring them but it eventually got to the stage where people actually bought them! So then it became an established business.
“My father started to build Summerfield caravans, named after the house we lived in, in Cheltenham. He only built them under this name for a few months, in fact, before they became Cheltenham caravans. That would have been around 1930, I suppose.
“I can remember my first caravan. Of course, they were square boxes in those days. The first night we were out, I was in a bunk. My father had forgotten to bring the pole to set it up so we went to the local forest and chopped down a couple of saplings to stick under the bed!”
At what period did you start to work in the business then?
“I joined in 1948. My first job was to go on a Calor Gas course, as it was relatively new in those days. We learned the hard way about that. If we got a new design then we tried it out on ourselves to start with.
“We tried to make the cooker neat and tidy, behind a set of doors in the caravan. I remember we were meeting some friends at the Cap d'Antibes, and my mother said to my father: ‘You said you’d put the kettle on, and you’ve forgotten,’ but he hadn’t forgotten, in fact.
“She opened the doors and, as you probably know, Butane actually had no smell at all then, so she struck a match; it blew up and blew the side of the caravan out! So my father had to cook for the rest of the holiday as she was all bound up.”
That’s incredible! And a trip to the Cap d'Antibes is quite an adventure on its own, even today. What was it like then?
“Well my father, as a matter of routine, always wanted to do 100 miles before breakfast. We deliberately hammered the caravan so that if anything was going to fall off, we would find out what is was before we built them for the customers.
“It didn’t always work that way, mind you. Sometimes things would fall off that you just didn’t see again. If, for instance, you could avoid going over the French pavé, he wouldn’t!
“When we tested Elsan, which was literally a bucket, and Racasan, which was a bucket with a sealed lid, we went into Switzerland; opened the door when we stopped and the lid had come off as we passed over the bumps. The whole contents of the toilet was running across the caravan floor, so we didn’t buy any more after that…”
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